A Half-Dozen Ways We Forgot The War
Let the record show that Universal made six Maria Montez/Jon Hall adventure romances between 1942 and 1945 (Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, White Savage, Cobra Woman, Gypsy Wildcat, and Sudan). They were embraced by a wartime public that we’ve since been informed was starved for such escapist exotica. I guess all of us will eventually be sized up as neatly for whatever films we’re currently making popular. The six were escapist and as nearly exotic as 40’s restriction made possible. Youngsters liked them for swordfights and snake pits, plus their playing often in tandem with Sherlock Holmes or comedy/musicals Universal released by peck loads. What really distinguished Montez/Halls was Technicolor. The first of them, Arabian Nights, was also the company’s initial run at three-strip lensing, setting a pace for class bookings in theatres not otherwise hospitable to Universal output. If you want to know what this half-dozen meant to a generation coming up in the forties, read Alan Barbour’s first chapter of A Thousand and One Delights, his paean to moviegoing during what I’d call an absolute peak era. He saw them first-run and later chased Realart revivals playing Montez/Halls into the fifties. These were evergreens for being actionful and unbound to years they were made. Color sold them to theatres insisting on that edge over television, with showmen going back and forth to Realart wells throughout ten-years that company leased oldies from Universal. After that, it was anybody’s luck just finding the six. I’ve tried and have so far seen only half. Universal released two so far on DVD, Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves. Now having teamed with TCM for disc projects, I’d hope they’ll do the rest. Word is that three-strip elements survive on the group and prints maintain much of Technicolor's original luster (but were some lost in Universal’s disastrous vault fire of last year?).
France sells a DVD of Cobra Woman, likely a result of Robert Siodmak having directed it. There used to be revivals of that one, sometimes on nitrate 35mm, at revival houses catering to audiences in search of laughs over its retro silliness. They anointed Maria Montez as camp icon for that generation removed from Alan Barbour’s matinee congregation. Now camp is as dated as its followers proposed Montez and Cobra Woman to be. Everyone back to original writers and crew knew all six M/H's to be outlandish. Celebrated director/scribe Richard Brooks got his start on Cobra Woman. To he and others, the Montez/Halls were initiations not unlike fraternity Hell week, a future rich source of anecdotes about fat-cat producers slapping out "tits and sand" rubbish (their appellation) from which genuine talent struggled to graduate. One needed healthy cynicism to work on these. None got respect, but cash reward flowed aplenty. Arabian Nights cost just under a million and brought back several times that. Producer Walter Wanger made a personal killing for having produced it at Universal. Once he’d laid the blueprint, staff hands pushed forward to replicate the mold. They all recognized camp without benefit of introduction to the term. For such profits earned, you could label these molasses and still drive a Cadillac home.
It really comes down to one’s own exotica threshold. Do you draw the line at Sabu dashing about in harem pants? To have enjoyed 1940’s The Thief Of Bagdad helps, for the Montez/Halls are largely economy versions of that. Maria Montez was among those Hollywood celebrated as most fabulous of beauties. For temperament minus notable talent, there was no chance she’d play a Mrs. Miniver, but Montez was equal to displaying as much (which is to say not much) flesh as censors would allow, being a type reincarnated in the sixties as Ursula Andress and various Hammer Glamour practitioners. Montez also forged ahead of her time posing in see-through attire for photographers (as here), anticipating Playboy pictorials successors would engage. There were reports she stood before mirrors to declare, When I look at myself, I am so beautiful, I scream with joy. That was likelier a Universal plant to prevent Montez aspiring beyond status as a costumed joke. By the time the actress tried variation, it was too late. Some have attached Hollywood Babylonian significance to Montez’s 1951 heart attack in a bathtub (filled with too hot water?), although that death at age 34 probably amounted to nothing more than it appeared.
Jon Hall was a big side of beef way this end of magnetic, his screen companions (even besides Montez) forever more colorful and engaging. Aforementioned Sabu was like Beanie Babies for the brief time he swooned a public fascinated by his boy-toy allure. Sexual currents were afoot in these shows beyond bare midriffs Montez displayed. Robert Stack remembered girls lined up at Sabu’s dressing room for a go at his offscreen exotica, and frequent supporting Turhan Bey cut a hooded eyed swath through boudoirs not limited to consort Lana Turner’s. Both these guys put Jon Hall in the shade for manly technique their foreign origins suggested. Bey would in fact replace Hall as romantic lead in the final entry, Sudan, with the latter now relegated to support. What's best overall about the series are its background players. Never did comic relief strive so mightily to soften starch out of endlessly told tales (one writer alerted Walter Wanger that Arabian Nights was just a western with camels, to which the producer essentially replied, Yeah, and your point?). Even allowing for viewer disdain with turbans and slippers with bells, there are joys of Shemp Howard, Billy Gilbert, Andy Devine … a casting department’s joke bag emptied in service of brisk shows (all under 90 minutes, most less than 80) that really benefit from oft-doses of slapstick. For those that enjoy giddy days of Universal manufacture, the six Montez/Halls are gem fields worth mining. I’ve had fun watching ones available. They’ve kind of grown on me like mosquito bites that feel good when you scratch them. The DVD’s of Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves (plus the Region 2 Cobra Woman) are some of the prettiest modern renderings of vintage Technicolor around, and reason beyond the film’s entertainment values to invest.